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Wearable devices digitally measuring vital signs have been used for monitoring health and illness onset and have high potential for real-time monitoring and disease detection. As such they are potentially useful during public health crises, such as the current COVID-19 global pandemic. Using smartwatch data from 31 infected individuals identified from a cohort of over 5000 participants, we investigated the use of wearables for early, presymptomatic detection of COVID-19. From physiological and activity data, we first demonstrate that COVID-19 infections are associated with alterations in heart rate, steps and sleep in 80% of COVID-19 infection cases. Failure to detect these changes in the remaining patients often occurred in those with chronic respiratory/lung disease. Importantly the physiological alterations were detected prior to, or at, symptom onset in over 85% of the positive cases (21/24), in some cases nine or more days before symptoms. Through daily surveys we can track physiological changes with symptom onset and severity. Finally, we develop a method to detect onset of COVID-19 infection in real-time which detects 67% of infection cases at or before symptom onset. Our study provides a roadmap to a rapid and universal diagnostic method for the large-scale detection of respiratory viral infections in advance of symptoms, highlighting a useful approach for managing epidemics using digital tracking and health monitoring.

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